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Jake remake: Arrieta strong in spring debut, keeps eye on October

Jake Arrieta pitching against the Indians on Wednesday.

MESA, Ariz. – Cubs ace Jake Arrieta was so effective Wednesday in his first game action since the National League Championship Series that he said he was thinking about starting the next inning with an intentional walk if he’d been allowed to pitch one more.

Just so he could work on some things with a man on base. And if he could have found a way to get the guy on second, even better.

“But how do you intentionally put a guy on second base?” Arrieta said.

He wasn’t joking.

To the delight of a sold-out crowd at Sloan Park, the guy with the most dominant finish in major league history last year picked up where he left off in a six-up, six-down first start of the spring, against the Cleveland Indians.

And it’s probably just as well he didn’t get the chance to figure out how to arrange those base runners.

“The biggest thing is I feel great,” said the reigning National League Cy Young Award winner. “The timeline is laid out in a manner that’s going to prepare me for Opening Day, and that’s what I’m excited about.”

Pushing the first starts for frontline starters Arrieta, Jon Lester (Thursday) and John Lackey (Friday) into the second week of the Cactus League schedule is all part of the big-picture plan of preserving their health and strength for a season the Cubs expect to last an extra month.

Nobody on the roster is more important to reaching that goal than Arrieta.

His fastball reached 96 mph on the stadium radar gun; his command was good; and he struck out the first two batters he faced the last two.

“We had a conversation about potentially going a third,” said Arrieta, who knew that conversation would go nowhere – not in his first start of the spring, or his 14th start of the season if he wants to argue for another inning late in the game with a big lead.

“Those bullets that I do have left are going to be more important in October,” Arrieta said of the controlled workload plan this year that might prove tougher on him than the best lineups he faces.

“Obviously, the competitiveness that I’ve had since I was a kid was full-go last year. I didn’t want to come out in the seventh or eighth,” he said. “But at the end of the day, what’s most important for our team is what I really care about.”

Arrieta, who went 16-1 with a 0.86 ERA in his final 20 starts last season, racked up 248 2/3 innings including the playoffs last year – a career high by 72 innings.

He admits fatigue set in for his final two playoff starts.

“If [following the plan] means only going 210 [innings] up to October instead of 230, I’m fine with that,” he said.

Even if days like Wednesday that inspire conversations like he had after the second inning remind him that it might be a challenge to adhere to the plan if left to his own devices.

“It would have been OK if I threw a third [inning]. There was zero fatigue,” he said. “I think the work I was able to do was plenty for today.”

Arrieta slots into a normal every-fifth-day schedule at this point, along with Lester and Lackey starting the next two days. And all expect to be ready for 100-pitch workloads in their opening starts.

But monitoring workloads this year for a staff that is critical to the Cubs’ big ideas for October – and that can’t afford a long-term injury to a key starter – has been a topic from Day 1 of camp.

“Last year going through a pennant race for the first time [with this group], certainly we pushed some guys very hard,” general manager Jed Hoyer said that day. “We’re going to be aware of that.”

And if it keeps Arrieta as sharp as he looked in his first competitive moments since the playoffs, he’s fine with that.

“I’ve worked on a lot of things, refined some things,” he said of the first three weeks of camp. “Body control is incredible. The ball’s coming out of my hand really good with really low effort. Velocity’s great.

“All signs are pointing in a really good direction.”